Friday, April 20, 2007

Leisure activities of the Self Righteous

I'm not sure that I have too much to say about this at this point, but the blog needed a bit of propulsion and I had to get this out. I've been taking notice (largely since my Grandmother got Satellite TV) a peculiar thing about a great deal of the Arabic Christian religious programming. Besides the regular preachifying, bible stories, televised services and the like, there seem to be significant chunks of the programming schedule devoted to "debunking" Islam. Go figure...

These mythbusters do not meddle with ballistics gel and blasting caps however, they usually sport an array of Muslim scholars (whose authority I'm in no place to comment on) and a very well versed knowledge of the Qur'an (or at least what it says). Generally there are two characters, a layman and a priest--and as I've noticed at least one of the two has to be a former Muslim now very vocally living a new life with the J-man. The rhetorical structure resembles some sort of perverse good-cop-bad-cop scenario: So the layman will often read emailed in questions or just throw out his own "nagging doubts" you could say, and the Priest/expert answers them with startling numbers of citations and book recommendations, all the while himself being sure not to place explicit judgment, just a sort of bemused surprise at all these strange things they're finding out about Islam. e.g.

Dude: "Is it true that there are errors (mistakes) in the Qur'an?"
Priest: "Well actually, yes, you see in this manuscript blah blah blah, and this scholar tries to explain it by this way but doesn't that seem strange? I mean I'm not wanting to criticize but isn't it strange how you can have so many discrepancies or errors?"
Dude: "wow, that is peculiar... I wonder why that is..."


Dude: "So you know when I was a Muslim I always had problems with remembering the exact number of repetitions I should do for my prayers blah blah blah and Ramadan always seemed like a chore to me, you know? What's the bible and Christianity say about religious obligations and prayers."
Priest: "[to the effect of everything is easy and good in the warm, muscular arms of Jesus, and how when Christians fast its so totally different, etc.]"
Dude: "Yea, he is pretty sweet, I don't miss Ramadan one bit"

This is at least a few hours worth of daily programming, and although perhaps I didn't represent it that well, it seems to me weaselly and disingenuous. It creates a huge bank of ego credit for the Christian viewers, now even more complacent in the belief that their religion is soooooo freaking good and confirms the Muslim majority surrounding them are a bunch of pitiable fools (definitely pitiable, Jesus still loves them). And to think on the converse any Muslim viewer watching, far from feeling that this thinly veiled attack on their faith was a discussion, would then most likely have resentment for the increasingly cloistered Christian populations confirmed.

I suppose this kinda shit is all run of the mill for all religions, but I think what disturbs me the most is that the Copts and other Arab Christians, attempting to distance themselves from the media-produced image of a horde of screaming religious fundamentalist arabs (muslims), have decided to become inquisitive-voiced, soft-spoken religious fundamentalist arabs. It's like how sugar-coated pills are often much more difficult to swallow because of that mucous-y sweetness...
I've got little more insight to pour into this now, but it has been nagging me.


Blogger Sebonde said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

Remove my last post. It is not proofread. I pressed preview to read over my comments before publishing, but the damn blogger published then unproofread. Sorry.

Okay, Sheriff, I'm going to have it out with you. It's nice to see that you realize the attempt by a religion to debunk other religions is s.o.p. But I can see that it stilll annoys you. Well, annoying though it may be, it is unavoidable. If I believe one religion is true, then I must perforce reject everything that contradicts that religion as false. There are, of course, many religions, and they all pretty much contradict one another. You can be the Enlightenment Atheist and say that they all are false (and laughable absurdities, to boot), but if you choose a religion, then you have forfeited your right to such Olympian detachment. You must be a partisan apologist in some way or another. If I am a Christian, I accept that Allah does indeed have a Son and that this Son, by being co-substantial with the Father, is Allah as well. This means that I cannot accept Islam. Obviously I must reject it. You wouldn't expect me to accept a belief that explicitly says my belief is not only wrong but a monstrous heresy, would you?

Also, if you believe that your religion is the salvation of mankind, then you have a duty to preach it. Christians are told again and again that they should always preach the Gospel and to use words only when necessary. Of course, these words from St. Francis are rarely heeded because, well, talking the talk is much easier than walking the walk, but sometimes words are necessary, especially when rival religions are out there trying to refute the claims of the religion you are convinced with all your heart and mind is true.

Now, you object to the silly, saccharine, Carnegiesque condescension of these Arab Christian apologists. I am sure I would find it annoying as well. This is why I don't watch EWTN much anymore. Apologists' efforts to be charitable notoriously are either at best patronizing or at worst treacly anathemas of the Church Lady. But, in all honesty, what would you have them do? Would you prefer them to bluntly say what they really think of Islam and start mass riots? Or would you have them not respond to the Islamic challenge at all and simply accept the Koran as God's true Testament?

By the way, I won't offer a sugar-coated critique of Islam. The more I read about it, the more I am convinced that the prophet was a con artist who came up with ad hoc revelations to justify his ever more populous harem. This critique is what got Rushdie in trouble, and what the Rushdie affair (along with what you guys have dubbed Popegate)showed is that Islam will respond to criticism of it with violent threats simply because it cannot reasonably defend what is at bottom a congame almost (but not quite) as silly as Mormonism.

If this strikes you as uncalled-for harshness, tough. Deal with it. Scantron has written on this blog that the belief in the Real Presence is a belief of stupid people. That was harsh and unkind, but I still love Scantron. I love him so much that I pray that God won't consign him to the lowest ring of hell for his hybristic heresies.

9:57 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Listen, this wasn't debunking, this was poor argument. This would be like me judging the merit of your post here by virtue of the fact that your first "draft" was not proofread, may have had typographical errors, etc. This does not count as debunking, this is childish.

Additionally, this is not the waging of a theological battle over the determination of right and wrong or whatever, this is a political maneuver based in an increasingly cloistered sectarianism. Furthermore, the copts may be in a tight spot for sure in Egypt, but they have a history (recent even) of real mobilization for representation, inclusion, and political egalitarianism, which makes this weaseling all the sadder.

Additionally sebonde, I'm rather surprised by your critique of Islam. Not that you have no respect for many of the populist backlashes (regarding which it really must be noted how much is media manufacturing) regarding particular "freedom of speech issues" (which themselves need to be harshly critiqued as "green baiting" or whatever you want to coin the term as), fine. You are however basically conflating an entire nexus of complex and diverse histories, economies, and societies into one big ball of cliched presumption and resentment. It comes off ugly and unthought, I'm sorry to say.

I'm not being an apologist here but I wasn't making any claims about Copts (a term which itself has highly diverse problematic usages) in general, just a few TV shows that I saw that pointed to a dangerous trend. I generally agree with Scantron, not about the stupidity of the individuals, but the particular absurdity which seems to be persistently embodied in the structure of religions

12:56 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

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11:51 AM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

Delete the above two comments, please. God, I suck at proofreading. Sorry.

What you have descibed, Sheriff, amounts to really petty theological nitpicking. This is dangerous? How so? If your description is indeed apt, then it is at worst the petty carps of a religious minority. Seriously, don't you have weightier things to concern you?

If you agree that a "particular absurdity ... seems to be embodied in the structures of religion", then does this mean you are willing to see an absurdity in the structure of Islam? If so, then what would be an Islamic stuctural absurdity in your estimation?

Why are you surprised by my critique of Islam? You know very well that I am an orthodox Catholic. This means among other things, at the risk of repetition, that I believe that God is triune. So, of course, I will consider any claims of divine revelation that deny the trinity to be false. Therefore, I do not think that the Koran is actually God's word. I think that Muhammad simply made it up. Does it surprise you that I would think so?

Now, you would be right to say that this stance towards Islam is simply presumption for I am indeed presuming my revelation to be true and, therefore, your revelation must be false. But, again, Sheriff, presumption is here another word for belief, and your chiding me for my presumption is tantamount to saying that I should not hold to the Christian Faith.

But, truth be told, Sheriff, even if were not a Christian believer, I would have a really difficult time taking Islam seriously. When I read that Muhammad got a special revelation from God to take a fifth wife (Zayd) after God had limited the number of wives to four, I can readily understand where Rushdie got his idea for his rather wicked satire of the Prophet. Aisha, in fact, said at the time that Muhammad received this special dispensation in what could readily be construed as Austen-like irony: "Truly thy Lord makes haste to do thy bidding." To be sure, a pious Muslim would remark that Aisha was simply acknowledging the special concern God had for his Prophet. Only a Westerner, jaded by the cynicism of Enlightenment skepticism, would think devout Aisha capable of such impious irony.

I am jaded I guess. In the West divine revelation has been used to justify harems from M√ľnster to Jonestown to Waco. In fact, presenting oneself as a chosen vessel of God who ipso facto has special fucking privileges is one of history's oldest and perennial cons. Catholic priests, as I am sure you know, have even used it.

Is it resentment to have skepticism towards religious leaders? Or is this accusation you leveled against me simply a way to deflect criticism? I would imagine that Scantron would simply laugh at me if I told him that his ridicule of the Catholic Eucharistic Doctrine was simply an expression of ugly resentment. If I told those who dismiss the doctrine of Papal infallibility as a naked power grab that they were simply resentful fucks, those resentful fucks would quite rightly accuse me of trying to dodge criticism with silly namecalling.

Now perhaps my critique of Islam is made out of sheer ignorance. Perhaps I have read too much Bernard Lewis (fifty pages of What Went Wrong? may well be too much) and have, even though I like to think I am resolutely opposed to the idea of pre-emptive genocide, unwittingly absorbed too much Huntingtonite propaganda simply by living in these United States and consequently have lots of scales on my eyes. I'll admit this as possible, and if this is truly the case, then I would humbly ask for your pardon and request that you recommend to me books that will correct my warped Huntingtonite Weltanschauung.

But, if this is indeed the case, then, please, do not just assert this is so but substantiate the assertion. I am a Catholic. The only unsubstantiated assertions I will accept are those from the Pope, and then only when he is speaking ex cathedra.

11:53 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

First, I do have weightier things that concern me; I think my description is pretty apt and the post wasn't meant to make any actual statements about religion or how they function, just show a bit of self-righteousness; I've got some hilarious examples of Muslim self-righteousness here in Egypt that I was thinking of posting next.

By the structural absurdity, I was talking about belief in God. But I'm not going to have this discussion so I'm willing to leave it at that.

Lastly, your critique of Islam, if it starts and stops with the trinity, shouldn't mosey over to the realm of making blanket statements about adherents of Islam (particularly modern day), which you did.

What it ultimately comes down to is, go ahead and call me one of your Olympian Englightenment Athiests if you'd like, cuz I really really don't give a fig about any of them, because "
Pleasant it is, when over a great sea the winds trouble the waters, to gaze from shore upon another's great tribulation; not because any man's troubles are a delectable joy, but because to perceive you are free of them yourself is pleasant. "

1:10 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

Okay, so, sorry, I misunderstood. You object to my implication that Muslims don't tolerate criticism of their religions that well. I take it then that my characterizations of the Koran and the Prophet do not bother you. But you bristle at my generalizations about Muslim intolerance. Sorry for being so slow on the uptake.

I understand why you would bristle at the generalizations. For instance. there were many Muslims who did not respond to the Pope's Regensburg address with violent riots but instead took great pains to point our a historical errors, and yet the Western Press pretty much ignored these reasonable response, preferring to focus upon the riots. Yet, these riots did happen and were extensive and deadly. It is I think undeniable that such events as the Rushdie Affair, the Cartoon Riots, the Nigerian Miss World Riots, the Riots in the aftermath of the Regensburg Address, the execution of Mahmoud Muhammad Taba, etc. make it very difficult for Westerners to believe that Islam as such is a religion that is open to criticism or reform. You may tell me that all those riots really are the results of cynical manipulation of pent-up rage at Western Hegemony, and, yes, there is alot of truth in that, but, nevertheless, those riots were precipitated by attacks (real or perceived) on Islam.

And some of those attacks were what I would regard as simply natural. For instance, a great deal of the Koran seems to the non-believer to be simply Muhammad's ipse dixit. In the Western Tradition any man who pawns off his fiats as God's Holy Writ is a big fat target for satire. That's why the Italians (and, of course, non-Italians) can't resist flinging zingers at the Pope. But the Rushdie Affair told us that Muhammad is above all satire, anyone who dares say otherwise will get a price on his head. Well, sorry, even the Koran says that Muhammad had his foibles. We Christians were thinking, hey, we've been taking our lumps from the Voltaires for over two centuries now, what makes Islam think its shit does not smell?

The Regensburg Address basically said as much. It was, I still insist, a critique of the Huntingtonites which turned their critique of Islam against them. But there was a message to Islam, of course. It was not that Islam is an inherently violent religion, though. Papa Ratzi's message instead was this: Hey, look, I was at a university for years where I had to work with colleagues who thought all of my beliefs were simply hocus pocus. If I could reasonably deal with such grave offenses against my religion, you guys can as well. Now, if I understand you correctly, Sheriff, you would regard this message as ugly and even racist because it strongly implies that Muslims need to be told by their European betters to act rationally. Fair enough. I think given the reaction a great many Muslims have to attacks upon and criticism of their religion, such a message is warranted. You do not. I am sorry to say the obvious: We profoundly disagree.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Hey, guys, it's me-Scantron! I keep coming up in this thread through no initiative of my own! That's okay-although I would caution anyone against using my personal and in some cases possibly grossly uninformed opinions as any sort of "paradeigma" or model.

My one-time pronouncements on various forms of "stupid people", which I am now unable to find in the blog archives but which I know included young earth creationists and perhaps as Sebonde says believers in transubstantiation, are to a certain extent biting me in the ass, but as sebonde says, get used to criticism.

(As for transubstantiation itself, as far as I can tell from a few Google searches the orthodox Catholic belief is that the bread and wine, while retaining their normal physical forms, become in "actuality" on the level of essence the real body and blood of Jesus. This entails a profound metaphysical argument which perhaps only sebonde knows in detail. For a time I thought that transubstantiists thought that on a brute physical level the bread and wine "really become" flesh and blood, which I am positive would be quickly disproved by laboratory analysis. Since, however, this is not actually what they claim, but instead that on some other metaphysical level bread and wine are body and blood, this problem appears to me to be unfalsifiable on the Popper/A.J. Ayer definition of falsifiability according to the content of the problem's own terms, and so I have little to say about it. So let me rephrase: Those who think beyond all proof that the bread and wine are *literally* body and blood [i.e. the bread becomes squishy flesh, the wine plasmic red blood cells] are, indeed, stupid people, since they claim something patently false to their own eyes. Metaphysically, I have nothing to say to their argument for the time being.)

The Sheriff is largely right; I don't have much to say about the particular beliefs of individuals, but about the "structural" forms of religion per se. Far from being some sort of haughty Atheist on Olympian Heights, I have very little to say about the religion of everyday life, which I will leave to psychologists and sociologists, but rather about those cases and, on a larger scale, movements that effectively alter the social order. I realize that this position in itself constitutes a sort of haughtiness, insofar as I don't treat certain views seriously which other people take as the bases of their very existences, but then again I possess beliefs that many, many others might find idiosyncratic and, in a word, stupid. I'd like to try to persuade them otherwise, and I will, and so I take a certain form of liberal "tolerance" to be a necessary condition for spreading such persuasion. That's me, basically: Liberal in my belief that individuals should be able to shape their personal lives to a large extent by their own privately or collectively chosen ethical and religious codes, but concerned when these codes would impose themselves as the hegemonic limiting conditions of society [and I will cede sebonde a point here; most exclusively Islamic societies, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, are notoriously worse in this respect than some of the predominately Christian or secular societies].

But while I am indeed an atheist who has long stopped thinking about the absolutes of religious doctrine, that doesn't mean that I fall into the "liberal trap" of "not believing in anything," as Fish or some other radical relativist critic might be wont to say. Furthermore, most secular liberals aren't actually the sort of namby-pamby "can't we all just get along" tolerantists that Fish wants to make them out to be: they possess real, deep-seated convictions about making the world a better place, and many of these convictions seem to me attractively true and powerful: affording equal rights to women, gays, and traditionally excluded minorities, and fighting for a proliferation of dissenting viewpoints under the rubric of free speech. My main disagreement with traditional liberals is the idea that the best (or "least worst") society is to be afforded by limited representative government and freemarket capitalism, so there ya go.

Otherwise I don't see anything particularly troubling about this thread: it is an avoidable profound disagreement, as sebonde says.

3:24 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I have to say, I've been running this show (post) with the flu for the past two days, so Excuse the laxness of my arguments and incompleteness of responses. We're no longer talking much about anything I intended to post about, so I've got nothing else to say there. Well one thing, I think characterizing Iran next to Saudi is absolutely wrong. I think it's a well-tread canard that Iran is some sort of islamofascist paradise. True they've got problems with the women question, but by jove how much of those problems are perpetuated by bourgeois feminist critiques or monarchist exiles just wanting to take a jab. Iranians, iranian women even, manage to express a significant deal of personal freedom. For instance, Iran is the only country in the world (!) that recognizes a monetary value to women's housework (which is if you recall one of the big "Impossible Demands" of 60's-70's leftists-feminists) in the instance of divorce. Not that it's important either, but they derive this principle from Islam...or rather a particular reading of it. Also here in agreement with Scantron, I'll argue my beliefs, but I'm not really going to be able to get excited trying to implant myself in an argument I've got no foundation in. Islamic societies are going to be the most gender-criminal or repressive sure, as long as you draw the lines (of what is islamic society, what is repressive) the way you want.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Not really sure what's going on here because of all of the deletions, but I'd like to get my complaints into the mix. My problem with religious people is that they much of the time they make bad arguments for an idea that cannot be justified by good ones. One of those bad arguments that has come into fashion as of late is that people of different faiths can get along and even be "spiritual" together. That's bullshit, as I think Sebonde points out. Islam and Christianity contradict one another, just as Judaism and Christianity contradict one another and so on. So, Sherief, if you have a problem with Christians making bad arguments against Islam, I think you should forget your (strange, in my mind) inclination to defend Islam and remember that these are two irrational parties doing what we should expect them to do. At least they're not trying to pretend that they shouldn't be arguing. As for your point about Iran, good for them for practicing a policy that produces a good end-result, but I'm not ready to pat them on the back. Iran's interpretations of Islamic texts and its legislation based on those interpretations does a lot more harm than good. They can kiss my ass along with their co-religionists, their religious opponents, and the horse they rode in on.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I will only point out, Austin-5000, that the fact that "Islam and Christianity contradict one another" does not logically entail the conclusion that it's impossible for "people of different faiths [to] get along." They do, of course, every day and all over the world. You're right to say that we shouldn't expect them _not_ to argue, though.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

The power of the Huntington thesis is how much it's self-fulfilling. Religions may have structural elements to them, but one could easily point to countless historical and sociological data to show just how malleable and conditioned they in fact are. Scantron's last comment here is I think a good place to start. It's true that there's a certain fundamental incompatability between religions. However, I have no doubt that the more one tells the Christians/Occidentals that Islamic culture is inimical to their own (and vice versa), the more it will be so. I would hope everyone on this blog can envision a future of pacific religious pluralism based on the millions of examples we have from the past and the present.

5:23 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

NB: the deletions have merely been duplicates of Sebonde's posts.

Austin, I didn't think I was defending Islam in any meaningful sense, although I was attempting to clear some debris about what I saw as misrepresentations of muslims. I do that in the states, and I do the same for Jews and Americans in Egypt. The people here don't see it as strange, they tend to take what I say very openly. Just because we expect a certain thing out of habit, acclimation, or whatever doesn't mean that we just drop it. Can we go back and read the original post? This wasn't argument, this wasn't an attack on christians christianity or a defense of Islam. But it seems we've crossed that point and now I'm defending Islam...right...well. Hm

W/r/t Iran, I do Agree with you Austin, but at the same time I think a great deal of their policy is merely retroactively justified by religion, and that the Iranian government has near nothing to do with Islam besides claiming that it does. Not that it would be any better, this isn't a good-interpretation-vs-bad-interpretation, scenario, but I think that it's about as facile as saying that Everything GWB does is inextricably tied with his Evangelicism; it doesn't add up. I'd like epople to get along with one another, I think they do. I think that this was a show of bad faith (ha ha pun), and If we're gonna start accusing me of being some closet defender of the practices of muslims i've got a swathe of examples of shit that i've seen muslims doing that I think is even more petty and distasteful. Religions are incompatable, people arent. Even religious people don't always deal in religion when they're dealing with other people. They shouldn't at the very least.

5:35 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

This thread is as good a place as any to mention another recent experience with "religious" "debate." In impeccable collegiate republican fashion (see Ann Coulter and the Ultimate Warrior), the Stanford College Republicans and the conservative Stanford Review magazine brought in a panel of three "ex-terrorists" to address the "nature of the problem" and "the only way it can be stopped."

Unfortunately, I could not attend this event, but it was written up on the following day by the Stanford Daily. It turns out that the three men were (possibly) ex-PLO members. If that is the case then I don't quite see how they, working for an Arab Nationalist movement, could explain the nature of extremist Salafist movements like al Qaeda.

The lead speaker, Walid Shoebat, is a notorious right-wing evangelical Christian who serves as a hireling for sundry conservative media outlets. Shoebat has lent his "intellectual" credentials to such propaganda pieces as "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West" and "Islam: What the West Needs to Know." (Sample quotation: "Islam is not a religion for personal use. Islam is Sharia Allah. Islam is a form of government to the world.") He told Newsmax during the Israel-Lebanon War that Israel had to reoccupy all of Lebanon and finally wipe out Hizbollah, and that "as long as we are worried about the feelings of the world community, we are never going to really eradicate the problem." And: "We can eradicate Iran. It is not a hard thing to stop Iran. But the will of the West is not there."

Shoebat, who as far as I can tell has never provided material evidence that he was actually involved with terroristic activities under the PLO, told the Stanford audience that America needs to "wake up to the dangerous realities of the Islamic faith." As if to totally confuse anyone in the audience with a half-logical brain, he went on to say that "Every time we say things in the media, we are being looked at as Islamophobes."

The Daily also smartly pointed out that the Stanford Republicans and Review had packed the frontmost portion of the crowd with rowdy supporters, who cheered the speakers' comments.

As you might remember, I reported on the Norman Finkelstein speaking event I attended, which left me a little uncomfortable. However, the substance of Finkelstein's argument was entirely secular, and his anger (let's not call it anything else) was directed at the Israeli government, not at "Jews" writ large or any other sort of large heterogeneous racial/religious group. And of course, had Finkelstein actually *said* something like "we have to wake up to the dangerous realities of the Jewish faith," he would have rightly been totally lambasted. The obvious and dangerous antisemitic sentiments of some parts of the world notwithstanding, it is sad to me that in America it is still okay, even welcomed in many places, to practice religious chauvinism and fearmongering against an entire religious group. I've spoken about this with respect to A&L Daily as well. Someday, I hope, people will realize that we passively accepted many terrible pronouncements during this "war on terror."

1:23 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Hey, let's talk about the maps. Anyone wanna talk about the maps? I would really love to. It's as easy as hitting back on your browser and looking to the post above this one. Huh? Ladies and Gents?

4:23 AM  

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